Maureen Paley,  Gillian , (2017)

Maureen Paley, Gillian, (2017)


DISCUSSION: Can a portrait ever truly capture the essential nature of a person? This week, students will discuss the emotional content of a portrait, using photographs they produced in the previous week as a point of departure for discussing the conceptual aspects of the portrait. In particular; students will be asked: Is there a screening of the self that occurs in front of the camera? Does a person project their notion or ideal of “self” to be captured? Or, is a portrait foremost an opinion of the portrait maker? Both? Short instructor presentation on photographers whose work illustrates these ideas.

STUDIO: Small in class “studio” photography activity. (Editing photographs, saturation, basic formatting techniques). Short time in lighting studio.

ASSIGNMENT: Students will also be assigned to make 5 photographs (outside of class), of one person, either familiar or a stranger, which will be shown and discussed at the start of the next class. Think of this assignment as a “mini series”.

National Gallery of Art: Modern Portraits in Photography https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/modern-portraits-in-photography.html#slide_1

Like other traditional artistic genres, portraiture was radically transformed with the advent of modern art. Before the 1800s, portraits typically depicted a sitter's external likeness; they also indicated his or her standing in society through clothing, setting, or the choice of surrounding objects. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, however, many artists rejected surface impressions. They argued that to reveal a person's character, one needed to show normally invisible elements such as mood or state of mind. Furthermore, artists wanted to address the unnatural space of art—flat canvases, self-contained chunks of wood or stone—as much as the natural space of the sitter. From the 1890s onward unnatural colors, distorted physical features, and abstract or nonrealistic settings became hallmarks of portraiture in advanced painting and sculpture.

Photographers transformed the scope of portraiture as well, beginning soon after the invention of the medium in 1839. Small, inexpensive photographs, such as tintypes or cartes-de-visite, catered to a broadly held desire for individual likenesses, expanding the clientele for portraits from affluent elites to middle-class multitudes. Nor were people interested in seeing or owning just their own portrait. Studios such as the firm of Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, established in Boston in 1843, or the Parisian salon opened in the 1850s by Nadar (Gaspar-Félix Tournachon), vied to photograph famous sitters, whose portraits were then sold or reproduced in print for mass distribution. Wide circulation of these portraits created the thoroughly modern phenomenon of stardom, bestowing upon images of politicians, actors, and even bohemian intellectuals, such as the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, the status of icon.

In the early twentieth century, artistically ambitious photographers drew inspiration both from advanced vanguard art and commercial portrait photography.

Susan Sontag, “On Photography”

Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930’s ( among them Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film—the precise expression on the subjects face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry.

In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although in a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of the photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self effacing does not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This passivity—and ubiquity—of the photographic record is photograph’s “message”, its aggression.

…To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it take to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.

“I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do—that was one of my favorite things about it” Diane Arbus wrote, “and when I first did it I felt very perverse”.


Can a portrait ever truly capture the essential nature of a person?

Is there a screening of the self that occurs in front of the camera?

Does a person project their notion or ideal of “self” to be captured?

Or, is a portrait foremost an opinion of the portrait maker?